When the C.D.C. reversed its Covid-19 guidelines last month and said that vaccinated Americans rarely needed to wear masks, it caused both anxiety and uncertainty.
Many people worried that the change would cause unvaccinated people to shed their masks and create a surge of new cases. On the flip side, a more optimistic outcome also seemed possible: that the potential to live mostly mask-free would inspire some vaccine-hesitant Americans to get their shots.
Almost three weeks after the change, we can begin to get some answers by looking at the data. So far, it suggests that the optimists were better prognosticators than the pessimists.
Cases keep falling
First, new Covid cases have continued to decline at virtually the same rate as during the month before the C.D.C. announcement, which came on May 13:
Overall, daily new cases have fallen by almost 75 percent since mid-April and by more than 90 percent from the peak in January.
A crucial point is that the loosened guidelines probably did not cause many people to change their behavior in ways that created new risks. Vaccinated people went maskless more often, but they are extremely unlikely to get the virus. And even before the C.D.C. change, many unvaccinated Americans were already not wearing masks, particularly in Republican-leaning communities.
The only newly worrisome scenarios involve unvaccinated people who had been wearing masks and decided to stop doing so after the C.D.C.’s new policy. Surely, some Americans fall into this category. But there don’t seem to be enough of them to increase the spread of the virus.
Shots have stopped falling
On the other hand, the C.D.C.’s change has had a noticeable effect on behavior in a positive way.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, announced the new mask recommendations at 2:17 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, May 13. Almost immediately, the number of visits to vaccines.gov — a website where people can research their local vaccination options — spiked, CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen has reported.
Traffic to the website rose even higher later that afternoon, after President Biden celebrated the change and encouraged Americans to get vaccinated so they could remove their masks. In the days that followed, traffic to vaccines.gov remained higher than it had been before the announcement.
More important, the vaccination trends also changed after Walensky’s announcement. For the previous month, the number of daily shots in the U.S. had been falling, as the country began to run out of adults who were eager to be vaccinated. With a few days of the mask announcement, the decline leveled off.
The chart here looks at the trends only among Americans 16 and up. The total number of daily vaccinations — including 12- to 15-year-olds, who became eligible the same week as Walensky’s mask announcement — has risen in the past few weeks.
‘Some positive reinforcement’
All of this is a reminder that fear is not the only way to motivate healthy behavior during a crisis. For much of the pandemic, the message from the C.D.C. has been one of “doom and gloom,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University told CNN. And fear can play an important role: Covid is a deadly disease, especially for people over 40.
But fear tends to be effective “for only a short period of time, and then often engenders reactance and resistance,” Sarit Golub, a Hunter College psychology professor, has written. Hope can be more sustainable. As Reiner said, “When you give the public some positive reinforcement, it really can bear fruit.”
In the case of the Covid vaccines, the hope is grounded in reality. Once you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to organize your life around personal fear of Covid (unless you are immunocompromised). You can safely travel, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, visit with friends and hug your extended family. You can do all of it without a mask. Many other normal activities — like riding in a car or exposing yourself to a normal flu season — present more risk.
After almost 15 months of pandemic living, I know that may sound aggressive, but it’s not. It is a straightforward summary of the scientific evidence.
Related: On this week’s episode of “Reliable Sources,” Brian Stelter and I talked about the “information lag” that has contributed to confusion about whether vaccinated people need masks.
THE LATEST NEWS
The Biden administration will suspend oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat, handily won a congressional special election in New Mexico.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, signed a bill banning transgender female student-athletes from competing in women’s sports.
Across the country, Republicans and Democrats are clashing over what schools should or shouldn’t teach about systemic racism.
Biden visited the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence,” he said.
As Texas becomes less Republican, its Legislature is veering right.
Other Big Stories
Opposition lawmakers in Israel have until later today to form a coalition that could unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinians are focused on their own political moment.
A cyberattack on the world’s largest meat processor forced nine U.S. beef plants to close and disrupted poultry and pork plants.
A drought along the California-Oregon border is infuriating farmers and killing fish.
Pope Francis has broadened the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of sexual abuse, specifying that adults can be victimized.
A mafia killer turned informer — known as the “People Slayer” — is out of prison in Italy after 25 years.
“You are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than be shot by an enemy at war”: A Times Opinion video explains how to reduce sexual assault in the military.
Running out of everything: Behind global shortages of electronics, lumber, clothing and a lot more.
Animal crossings: How does a deer cross a highway? You’ll want to see.
Quiz: How well do you understand today’s crime trends?
A Times classic: Take a virtual walking tour of New York City.
Lives Lived: Raimund Hoghe was born with a spinal deformity and doubted he could ever dance. Yet he made a career as a choreographer and incorporated his body into his performances. Hoghe died at 72.
ARTS AND IDEAS
‘We need access to athletes’
Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open this week after tennis officials fined her, and threatened further punishment, because she refused to participate in post-match news conferences. She did so, she explained, because hostile questions from journalists exacerbated her struggles with depression.
The conflict has highlighted two broader issues: the increased attention on athletes’ mental health and the shrinking power of traditional media. It has prompted nuanced reflections from sportswriters. Among them:
“In order to properly do our jobs, and to properly serve the public good, we need access to athletes; we need the filter of reporters to ensure that every word you read isn’t just glorified P.R.,” Kavitha A. Davidson of The Athletic wrote. But, she added, “there’s a reckoning that still needs to be had about the way we’ve covered women players and players of color,” who are often “subjected to vacuous questioning.”
“We all watch the games, but athletes always see, feel and understand what happens far better than we do,” Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated wrote. “At the recent Masters, Justin Thomas explained how the grain of the grass contributed to one of the worst shots he hit all week: a wedge into a creek that took him out of the tournament. There is no way that reporters at Augusta National would have otherwise understood that.”
“The days of the Grand Slam tournaments and the huge media machine behind them holding all of the clout are done,” Kurt Streeter wrote in The Times. “In a predominantly white, ritual-bound sport, a smooth-stroking young woman of Black and Asian descent, her confidence still evolving on and off the court, holds the power.”
For more: Osaka joined a growing list of athletes who speak openly about mental health.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
Make a light strawberries and cream cake to share.
What to Listen to
Five minutes that will make you fall in love with percussion.
What to Read
In honor of Pride, read notable comic books that include characters who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
What to Watch
The sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” stands apart for how it has “normalized Korean cuisine and culture,” writes The Times’s Priya Krishna.
Now Time to Play
The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were councilor and unicolor. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Rap’s ___ Nas X (three letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. The word “greynaissance” — from an article about how older people are reshaping Korean culture — appeared for the first time in The Times yesterday.
You can see today’s print front page here.
Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about Senator Joe Manchin. On “The Argument,” will waiving vaccine patents end the pandemic?
Lalena Fisher, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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